‘Are you a construction worker?’ Life as a black Rhodes scholar

Donald Brown shares the experiences that prompted him to talk about ‘institutional racism’ at Oxford

October 29, 2015
Man walking, University of Oxford campus, photo negative
Source: Alamy

A BBC interviewer once asked Stuart Hall, the celebrated Jamaican cultural theorist, about his time as a Rhodes scholar at the University of Oxford in the early 1950s. Had it lived up to his expectations? Had it looked the way that it was supposed to look? Hall said that it had looked fine, but it hadn’t felt the way that it was supposed to. He had been sure that he could be successful there, but had also known that he would never truly be a part of Oxford’s ethos because “it’s the summit of something else. It’s distilled Englishness.”

More than 50 years later, it strikes me that little has changed. My joy at winning a Rhodes scholarship to study at Christ Church was seriously diminished even before I arrived last October. The welcome newsletter I was sent by the Graduate Common Room used Ebonics to explain aspects of college life. For example, the prayer before dinner in hall was explained in the following terms: “Dem colleges generally require some swaggerific undergrad to stand up and say a piece in Latin before dem kids is allowed to eat. Showing off one’s knowledge of Latin is the Oxford equivalent of Kanye poppin’ bottles all over a gaggle of groupies or Drake makin’ it rain in da club.”

Then, when I arrived at Christ Church and went to the graduate common room kitchen for the first time, I was confronted by various posters featuring black celebrities reminding people in gangsta language to pay for their drinks and to not steal from the kitchen. I know that these were meant as jokes but, to me, ridiculing the way that black people stereotypically (but never actually) talk amounts to a subtle form of racism. It feels akin to the minstrelsy that occurred during the Jim Crow segregation era in the southern US, from where I hail.

In addition, during my first term I was continually singled out and asked for identification when entering the college grounds. By contrast, I did not see many white students asked. Three separate instances in particular convinced me that this was a real problem. The first was when I and two of my Kenyan friends were stopped and asked if we were “construction workers”. Another time I was with two white visitors from the US: they were allowed entry without question, yet I, the Christ Church scholar, was again asked to show my university card.

The third instance was when I was with three Hispanic friends, whom I wanted to take to the Christ Church bar. After I showed the security staff – known in Christ Church as custodians – my ID, I was told that I could stay, but my friends had to leave. I replied that they were my guests, but the custodian told us that visiting hours were over and escorted us off the site. College regulations (known as the “Blue Book”) make it quite clear that “members of the [college] and their bona fide guests” are permitted in the “Undercroft Bar and Buttery”.

Someone wrote an article about my experience in a student newspaper. After it was published, the college authorities wanted to talk to me. I assumed that things would get better at this point. I thought that they would be upset by what had occurred and embarrassed about what I saw as manifestations of institutionalised racism.

But their response was hugely disappointing. The dean published a statement that read: “We are sorry that some members of the university appear to have felt it inappropriate to be asked to show their university cards. At the beginning of any academic year, it is normal practice for our custodians and porters to ask to see proof of identity on a regular basis for the first month or so. This is an especially busy time for tourism, and there are still large numbers of visitors walking around. As a newcomer to Christ Church myself, I have also been asked to show my ID on entry on several occasions, and I applaud the thorough and professional approach taken by our porters and custodians. Our staff are drawn from a very wide range of ethnic backgrounds. They do a superb job in welcoming students, visitors, tourists and worshippers from all over the world.”

This statement disregarded my lived experience as a black student who has been the victim of numerous dehumanising experiences. It not only trivialises a very real and serious issue but, even more worryingly, betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of institutionalised racial oppression. Racism is a cultural and social structure whereby prejudice and power combine to form social constructs, legislation and widespread bias. It manifests itself as implicit bias as much as explicit hate. Therefore, policies that are ostensibly race-neutral, when left unchecked, are selectively enforced in ways that perpetuate racism by causing disproportionate harm to non-whites.

One college officer was very polite when he spoke to me, but he made it clear that he could not be sure whether the custodians had done anything that could be considered racist. Moreover, he voiced concern that my article had upset the custodians – which, in turn, upset the whole network of relations at Christ Church. He would not even concede that subconscious racism could have played a factor in any of my humiliating experiences. It reminded me of what happened in 1958 when Anthony Smith – a white student – petitioned the university to act after being confronted with signs saying “No Coloureds” in the windows of university-approved landladies. According to Stephen Tuck’s book The Night Malcolm X Spoke at the Oxford Union, the university authorities rebuked him for “disturbing good relations between the university and the landladies” and declined to remove the offending landladies from its list. (It did issue non-discrimination guidelines, but evidence suggests that these were not vigorously enforced before the university relinquished control of city lodging in 1970.)

Another meeting with college authorities amounted to more of the same. The official also appeared to blame me for upsetting the custodians and told me to go through the proper chain of command if I ever had more problems, adding that the media like to make Christ Church look bad.

As Hall realised, Oxford-Englishness has an imperial whiteness connotation to it that implicitly excludes non-whites. Let us not forget that Rhodes scholarships were established precisely to bring – as Cecil Rhodes himself put it – those parts that are at present “inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings” under “Anglo-Saxon influence”.

I am sure that the Christ Church administration believes in racial equality, but my view as a black student is that it unconsciously sanctions a racist atmosphere by failing to take a sufficiently active stance against it – leaving individuals like me to do the work. Structural and institutional racism must be contested within the chain of command, and people in positions of privilege must be prepared to indict one another when failings are identified.

Following that first term, things were better. My ethnic minority friends were no longer denied entry – although I was asked if I was a construction worker two further times, and the whole experience has left a lasting impression on me. I really hope that, as more students of dark complexion arrive at Christ Church this month, the college has learned from my experience last year and that no one has an experience like mine. I trust that my speaking out has opened the college authorities’ eyes to the lived experiences of ethnic minority students, and convinced them of the necessity to work actively to uproot the racist legacy that they have inherited.

Donald Brown is a Rhodes scholar at Christ Church, Oxford. He is studying for an MPhil in modern British and European history.

Regrets: the college’s response

Christ Church explains how it acted after receiving Donald Brown’s complaint

Following Mr Brown’s complaint in the autumn of 2014, we acted swiftly in reviewing our existing training on equality and diversity. As a result, we provided additional training for our staff.

We also met with Mr Brown on a number of occasions, where he received apologies in person from both the junior censor and the dean. He also received an unequivocal written apology.

Although we dispute some of Mr Brown’s claims, we have nonetheless addressed the wider issues this incident has raised, and are forming a group to review our practice. We recognise the need to be constantly vigilant in our efforts to identify and eradicate discriminatory practices, including forms of unconscious racism to which Mr Brown refers.

Mr Brown is a valued member of Christ Church, and he continues to study with us.


Print headline: ‘Are you a construction worker?’

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Reader's comments (10)

Sadly, the Dean's response to Donald Brown's complaint is a classic example of white denial. And it is shameful.
I was a student at Christ Church, and I was asked for my ID almost every time I entered for the four years I attended, many times having to resort to a full discussion of my membership status in order to be let in. I am white, but I could never shake off the feeling that it was because I looked distinctly working-class compared to the other students. There is a certain Oxford/ Christ Church mould, and unfortunately some of us are treated very differently because we don't fit it.
I was also a student at Christ Church for four years and despite being blonde and relatively well dressed (I don't think I looked particularly "working class"), I was asked to show my ID. I really don't think it boils down to class or race. I had a massive issue with the porters generally stopping me as it made me feel as if I wasn't a 'Member of the House'. I think the only real solution is to use a system of swipe cards such as those used as Merton and Magdalen as that way everyone who doesn't belong to the college will be stopped instead of arbitrary questioning of students.
I was a student many years ago at Oxford. As a foreign and coloured student I had had many bitter experiences of racial abuse during my time at Oxford. I never felt part of it for some reason or other, rather felt withdrawn most of the time there. I do not deny though that it has enriched my life experiences and has made me aware of the realities of life. Thanks, Oxford, you are a good educator!
I was a student at Balliol, who generally (then) couldn't care less whether you were a member of the college or not. Christ Church were notorious though for their behaviour - even when going for bi-weekly meetings, they insisted on keeping some of us at the door until our host, a professor, came to pick us up. I'm white and not from any discernible minority, so I can't imagine what it was like for Mr Brown, though I did have a somewhat similar experience with university administration. A member of custodial staff behaved, frankly, in an appalling manner over access to a building (which we had permission for) and subjected a small group of us to verbal abuse followed by an obscene gesture. When we complained, the name of the lead complainer had to be shared, by university regulations, with the staff member. Of course, he immediately counter-complained about this person alleging that he had been intimidated and threatened. The university's response was much like that of Christ Church - the very act of complaining had 'upset the staff' and put the responsibility back on the student, concluding that despite no evidence existing for this intimidation, the act of complaining constituted harassment, and issued a formal warning to the student, requiring under threat of further punishment a written apology. No action was ever taken against the staff member. It's not the only case I know of like this. In short, this sort of behaviour is, I believe, widespread in institutions like these. Students offer the path of least resistance, it's easier to blame them and threaten expulsion under ill-defined university codes, subject to very few actual laws, than take action against staff lest it involve unions and lawsuits. At at least one institution I know of, a student can find themselves in front of the conduct committee with the potential to be expelled for anything 'that may harm the university's reputation'. In other words, the message they try to put out is to never kick up a fuss, because it will end badly for you.
This, sadly, reflects the behaviour of many Oxbridge gatekeepers: women could tell many similar stories of prejudice (as I know from personal experience). I think the collegiate and university response (identified in the comments as well as the article), indicates not simply institutional defensiveness about adverse publicity, but also institutional self-consciousness about class and about the inevitably patrician relationship between the college as an institution and the staff (esp. domestic staff). That is to say, college governing bodies/administrators are more wary of seeming like arrogant upper-class snobs in their dealings with their low-paid domestic staff than they are of appearing to support the racist/sexist behaviour that their staff sometimes manifest. Sadly, I have seen an indulgent attitude taken towards staff sexism -- a kind of "we know it's not appropriate, but they're under-educated domestic staff, so what can you do?!" This sort of approach, of course, only serves to reinforce a perceived class distinction. There is *some* light at the end of the tunnel: colleges are gradually professionalising their front-of-house staff -- mainly because of the importance of conference income -- and, crucially, paying them more, in ways that also raise their self-esteem. This has an effect on staff approach to students too, eventually. But trying to avoid (or seeming to avoid) one form of discrimination by ignoring other forms of discrimination is hardly a great advertisement for Oxbridge life.
"... the media likes to make Christ Church look bad." Delusion of grandeur right there.
So not surprised, not by the treatment he received and by the insipid response from the college. In the late 90's I was a postgrad at Magdalene. About a week after I arrived, I was in the crowded porters' lodge, and knelt down at the table to write my contact details for an undergrad I was going to be supervising. The porter on duty shouted out across the lodge "That's how I like to see a woman - down on her knees!"
I expect the person who asked if you were "construction workers" was American. A British person would have said "builders".
Homogenization seems the answer....a de-differentiation into uniformity. ...but accept the painful loss of instructive diversities